“Sovereign democracy”: is it United Russia’s ideology?

Criticizing United Russia for having no ideology is the favorite pastime of its opponents and the media alike.  Mindful of this criticism, United Russia has been trying, for the past couple of years, to buttress its ideological credentials by adopting a new party program.  The adoption of this program was one of the objectives of the 7th party congress that took place on December 2, 2006.

This has not happened — apparently as a result of intense intra-party feuding -and the congress has settled on adopting a compromise “program statement." Signs of the ideological infighting were so visible that they have spilled over the documents that were made public in the months preceding the congress.

The credit for initiating yet another round of discussions about United Russia’s ideology (or lack thereof) must go to the deputy-chief of presidential administration, Vladislav Surkov.  In February of last year, Surkov addressed United Russia’s ideological cadre with the now famous speech, “Sovereignty as a political equivalent of competitiveness."

Conceptually, Surkov’s talk consists of two major parts.  The part that has received the most attention is about the concept of Russia being a “sovereign democracy”: a democratic, socially-oriented country where the supreme power of the state and its institutions (“sovereignty”) belongs exclusively to the people of Russia.  In a later article, Surkov defined sovereign democracy as “justice for everyone in Russia and for Russia in the world." 

(One would be hard pressed to find anything new, ideologically or otherwise, in the concept of sovereign democracy.  Surkov has simply repeated — arguably, in a more sophisticated way – what his boss, President Putin, had said on numerous occasions: in its transition to democracy, it is Russia and Russia alone that will choose the path of this transition and its pace.) 

However, it is the second part of Surkov’s speech that elevates it to the rank of ideological document.  Here, Surkov tackles the problem that has been haunting Putin’s presidency from the very beginning: the results of the privatization of the 90s, which the vast majority of Russians always considered illegitimate and unjust.   

Surkov argues that the lingering uncertainty about the future of the property acquired in the 90s deprives Russia’s business community of its faith in Russia as a place to do business.  As a result, a class of business leaders has emerged (Surkov calls them “off-shore aristocracy”) who — with money in off-shore accounts and whole families living abroad – just don’t identify themselves with Russia in the long term.

Surkov believes that a solution to this problem lies in the formation of the true “national bourgeoisie” – by nurturing a new class of property owners who would stay in Russia and strive for the nationally oriented economy.

As a matter of fact, Surkov is proposing a New Contract between the state and  businesses.  The rules of this contract would require businesses pay taxes and be socially responsible, whereas the state would guarantee their legitimacy.  In addition – and this is very important — to fulfill its part of the deal, the state must replace the broken post-Soviet bureaucracy with modern and efficient state institutions.

Apparently swayed by the fact that Surkov was addressing an audience of United Russia’s activists, some analysts have concluded that he was “offering” United Russia “ideology.” 

One might argue, though, that Surkov offered his ideas “for sale,” to any political party willing to implement them.  Besides, people close to him made it clear that the concept of sovereign democracy reflected the ideas formulated by Putin and his team, and was put forward to promote broad national discussion about Russia’s future and its role in the world.  One political scientist even coined the term the "Kremlin doctrine."

Regardless, if United Russia’s leaders had realized that they were “offered” an ideology, they certainly did not show that.  Addressing a major party meeting shortly after Surkov’s speech, the party’s leader, Boris Gryzlov, did not even mention it.  United Russia’s chief ideologist, Oleg Morozov, has joined a crowd of Surkov’s critics arguing that defining democracy with an “adjective” undermines the very meaning of democracy.

It has taken the whole summer and remarkable administrative skills of Vyacheslav Volodin, the number two in the party and Surkov’s protégé, to persuade his colleagues that embracing sovereign democracy was a right thing to do.  The result of his behind-the-scene lobbying efforts was that the “program statement” published on October 2, 2006 claimed United Russia’s allegiance to the principle.  Promptly, a logo announcing that “United Russia is the party of sovereign democracy” was dispatched to the front page of the party’s website.
There is nothing mysterious in United Russia’s resistance to Surkov’s ideological constructs.  The idea of creating the nationally oriented business belongs to a program of a liberal party, which United Russia is already not.  Today, the power base of the party is the state bureaucracy, and the latter has absolutely no desire to be reformed in order to serve the interests of the “national bourgeoisie.”

Instead, United Russia prefers to stick to its amorphous ideological platform of "social conservatism."  The party’s ideologists paint social conservatism as a harmonious coexistence of market economy with a strong state.  They seem not disturbed by the fact that the ballooning role of the state in the economy – something United Russia strongly supports – makes this   coexistence increasingly discordant.

According to Morozov, being social-conservative naturally makes United Russia a centrist party, which means that it acts in the interests of the “whole society” rather than of any particular group such as business. 

The aversion to ideological clarity has been United Russia’s trademark from the inception, and so far, it has served the party remarkably well.  Since 2001, United Russia has taken part in 61 federal and regional elections and won 59 of them.  Today, it has majority in 66 regional parliaments, and counts 69 regional governors as its members. 

So United Russia is not eager to engage in potentially risky ideological exercises and would rather position itself – especially in the run up to this year’s Duma elections — as the “party of real projects.”

Addressing the 7th party congress, Gryzlov delivered an impressive list of 18 “real projects” that United Russia is going to keep under the “party control.”  Here is a sample:  Safe Roads, Clean Water, Healthy Heart, and (my favorite) St. Petersburg, the Naval Capital of Russia.

With St. Petersburg being the naval capital of Russia, who needs ideology?

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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1 Response to “Sovereign democracy”: is it United Russia’s ideology?

  1. Yann Breault says:

    What about Surkov (and his friends) joigning Mironov? The “utopists” against the “apparatchiks”. That would make an exciting electoral spectacle…

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